Reflections on 25 Years of the ADA

By Betsy Tewey, Vice President

July 2015 is bookended by two celebrations of independence in America – the Fourth of July holiday and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At New Editions we consult on disability research and policy, we actively recruit and hire individuals with disabilities, and we promote diversity, so issues of civil rights, equal opportunity and freedom of choice are always on our minds. To observe the ADA anniversary, a group of New Editions employees reflected on the impact of the ADA in their lives. 

Overall, there was a strong sense that the ADA has been successful in promoting the civil rights of people with disabilities. However, this sense of progress was tempered by stories of uneven access and opportunity in daily activities. Here is the range of experiences and opinions our employees shared.

Community Living. Community living improvements and challenges were mentioned by many employees. Businesses have made progress in providing accessible services, but it depends on your location and your disability as to how much progress you may see: 

 “As a person who is blind, I feel confident when using my dog guide that any restaurant or other public location will provide service to us and that the law supports our activities at public places.”

“I am not able to enter many restaurants and shops because they have a step at their door and no ramp for my scooter. It is too easy for public businesses to avoid reducing entrance barriers by claiming the cost would be a hardship and place an undue burden on them or that the building is historic.”  

“During a break in the Blue Man performance, my companion and I chatted with a woman who used a wheelchair about how much we were enjoying the show. The proximity of our seats made us part of the same audience and encouraged the free flow of conversation among all people in the audience.”

“I have a mostly accessible apartment so I can live independently. My grocery store delivers to my kitchen counter.” 

“I can travel around the DC Metro area with ease due to the accessible metro rail system, bus routes and Metro Access.”

“While biking on Mackinac Island recently, I was delighted to find that adult tricycles and scooters were added as a rental option for people with balance issues. Two elderly women who would not have been able to ride bikes rode adult trikes. One gentleman had his little dog in the basket of his scooter, doing the tour. I’ve been going to the island for many years and never before seen so many mobility options to meet the unique needs of all visitors.” 

Education and Employment. Employees and their family members have observed and experienced many positive outcomes in the areas of education and employment. In the education system, we have seen increasing inclusion of children with disabilities in regular classrooms. We have hope that this will ultimately reduce prejudice in the employment world:

“In the early 90s, I had a class with one girl, who simply went by “T,” with phocomelia – she had very small arms and hands. She was in “special” classes most of the time, even though she was intelligent and self-sufficient. Now, my nieces talk about classmates who are blind, use wheelchairs, or take medications, in the same way as all classmates. I think the ADA played a role in advancing school integration and it is beginning to change perceptions.”

“As an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist, I have seen that today’s classrooms and childcare centers are more inclusive of children of all abilities than they were when I started working 16 years ago. Recently, I was working with a toddler in a center using switch toys and a voice output device. His curious classmates came over and asked to play. In that moment, the power of inclusion was evident. “

“In July 1990, my son was in preschool special education. Last year, my son graduated from a college program designed to provide equal access to students with developmental disabilities. We still see discrimination, prejudice, and environmental barriers on a daily basis. But the world is a much better place for my son and our family because of ADA.”

“As an individual who is blind, when I first walked into job interviews, I knew that because of the ADA, I was stepping onto an equal playing field; a field on which I would not be discriminated against or denied any opportunities on account of my disability.”

“The ADA has done little to change perceptions of people with disabilities. For example, during my job search I was frequently told I had a good resume and experience. But when the interviewer met me in my scooter, I could see the change in expression on their faces and I knew immediately that I would not be considered as a serious candidate for the position. I feel that people with physical disabilities like me have to struggle every day to combat the negative perceptions out there and work harder than anyone else at their job to prove their abilities and suitability for their position.”

“I feel the place the ADA needs to be improved the most, is on internet web sites. Web designers need basic widgets and controls available that provide accessibility for blind users. This is our avenue to productive employment and participation.”

“I also feel that people with disabilities, and not laws, must be the ones to change perceptions of people with disabilities. I try to do this every day by doing the best job I possibly can, participating in group situations as much as possible, and being out in the community communicating with other people so that they may see that I am really just like them in so many ways. In this way I hope to help people overcome their initial skepticism toward people with disabilities.” 

Travel. Travel is a popular leisure activity. The ADA, along with other legislation, has made travel for people with disabilities a possibility. Of course, our employees find challenges and adventures in their journeys:

“Many situations have gotten better for people with disabilities. I can now fly alone on many airlines.  I can reserve an accessible room with a roll-in shower in most hotels.”

“I could not go with friends to visit Williamsburg, Virginia because the train station there is inaccessible. I am often forced to take the Acela train to visit family (which costs significantly more), because I cannot make the turns necessary to get on and off the regional trains, even though my scooter fits the dimension profile on their website.”

“We always ask for an “ADA” room when we travel—that’s what the hotel industry calls an accessible room. My husband suffered a stroke a number of years ago and we have found an accessible bathroom to be safer. While these rooms meet standards, they often don’t work for us. We have learned to be flexible and creative, and view each hotel’s bathroom as part of our travel adventure.”

ADA for All. The ADA represents the application of our national values to all citizens. The ADA is important for everyone. Several employees commented on the potentially far-reaching impact of the ADA:

“The ADA is impacting every arena of our lives and enriching everyone’s life, those who currently need accommodations, those who will need them in the future, and those who benefit by being able to enjoy the company of individuals who utilize the wide array of available accommodations.”

“It is important to make everyone understand that WE, those with and without disabilities, are the beneficiaries of the improvements fostered by the ADA. People without disabilities need to recognize that as they age, they too will develop “disabilities” and need assistance. Now is the time to continue to push for growth.”

“The ADA goes beyond simply meeting the physical needs of people with special challenges, rather it gives each of us the opportunity to engage in and enhance the vibrant life of the community whatever our unique set of abilities.”

Perhaps we should begin to think of July as “Independence Month” to remind us how the values of the Declaration of Independence must be realized in the lives of all of our citizens, including those with disabilities.